Editorial 1 / Sacred and profane
Take a ride on the wild side
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

In India, the meeting of rivers marks many kinds of confluence, not all of which are metaphysical. Even the most momentous of these meetings — the one at Prayag — has its temporal uses. Purification and politics, private faith and public gesture could become inseparable on this hallowed site. Ms Sonia Gandhi, who reportedly feels uncomfortable when wished merry Christmas, is coming to the Kumbh mela. She might even take a dip in the sacred waters, if a sufficiently isolated ghat can be found for her. Her act, even before it has been performed, is being interpreted. Congressmen are elated that she will show the nation that she is a “devout and practising Hindu”, even as she seems intent on projecting this as an act of private faith. The contradictions in this are significant. Is it at all possible for a contemporary Indian political leader to practise religion in a purely private capacity? Can the rituals of mainstream Hinduism be projected in today’s India as an endorsement of secularism?

Ms Gandhi is to arrive at Allahabad a little after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s dharma sansad finishes its annual meeting. Having thus displayed her virtuous distance from bigoted politicking, she will go on to visit some of the akhadas whose members have broken away from the sangh parivar. She hopes to emerge, at the end of this pious sequence, not only a Hindu, but also a “secular” Hindu. But how secular is the ideology motivating these breakaway akhadas? It must be remembered that the bone of contention between the akhada factions is that icon of sectarian vandalism, the Ram mandir. It would amount to a particularly unfortunate form of theological and political naïveté to read this opposition to the VHP’s mandir politics as either apolitical or secular. The bickerings within the various akhadas, and between these and the sangh parivar are deeply mired in Hindutva politics. The holy men who refuse to participate in the dharma sansad are actually fighting over the right to legislate on the construction of the Ram mandir. Ironically, these sadhus see the wresting of this prerogative from the clutches of the VHP as the depoliticization of religion. According to this logic, the claim over the mandir is a question of faith, transcending politics. And spiritual bigotry is better than political bigotry; in fact, the former is not bigotry at all, but Hindu pluralism — the glorious spirit of which is to be seen everywhere in the Kumbh mela. An attempt to carve out a sphere of pure religion therefore ends up on the same side with fundamentalist politics.

This is the side Ms Gandhi would, willy nilly, end up associating herself with if she turns to the rebel akhadas for an endorsement of her brand of Hinduism. In this, she would, perhaps, find it impossible to keep her presence at the mela outside the interpreting gaze of a politicized spectatorship. Religion is now too inextricably a manifest or hidden tool of statecraft for that to be possible. The projection of public devoutness as apolitical has always demanded rhetorical prowess in India. In 1951, the first president of the Indian republic inaugurated the Somnath temple at Junagadh, built on the site where many temples had been razed by earlier invaders. It required the concerted efforts of this president, the prime minister and his council of ministers to insist that the “first citizen” of this newly founded secular nation had been present at this occasion not as the president but in a purely personal capacity.

The effort to keep apart Rajendra Prasad’s two identities — president and Hindu — was thought to be worth making for the sake of “secular governance”. This incident has been recently invoked by the current prime minister, in whom maintaining the distinction between private allegiance and public neutrality has resulted in bravura displays of rhetorical opacity. His political opponent must also know that no purification ritual can ensure her passage beyond the realm of the political.


Those who still doubt the existence of God might find proof of it on the roads of this city. I don’t mean the daily miracle of being able to go from one point to another; I mean the pervasive feeling of being watched, of not being alone, as the car veers and tries to avert collision — whom do we feel observing us at such times but the Almighty? Meanwhile, road safety weeks come and go, and amiable policemen loll behind stalls that say “We are here to help you”. And the chief minister issues orders, believing he’s in the Wild West, that they are to shoot criminals on sight.

The other day, I saw an old and battered Esteem on Theatre Road. The sight brought about in me an odd sense of dislocation; it was hard to believe that I wasn’t viewing it from the perspective of twenty years hence, when our luxury cars will come to be aimless wrecks, like old Ambassadors. Yet this prematurely impaired and rattling Esteem belonged to the present. Time and space are relative entities, and the “new car” ages swiftly in Calcutta. Capitalism is turned, literally, inside-out.

About six months ago, we bought a “small” car. Prudently, I chose a dark colour, so that the scratches, when they came, would remain inconspicuous. It’s wise to take precautions, since only aberrant individualists and women drive safely in this city. All the new cars are christened with dents, bumps and scratches, as children are when they begin to walk; but these scratches don’t heal. After buying the car, I was appalled and astonished to notice the number of Santros and Matizes and Wagon R’s that sparkled and glittered and, at once, had embarrassing crevasses and undulations on their sides where they’d been touched by other cars. Why is this so?

Part of the reason, of course, is that, though driving is supposed to be a social activity, undertaken by the civilized ego that creates, and obeys, regulations, in Calcutta the Freudian ego takes the backseat as a helpless passenger, and it is the id that has its hands on the driving wheel. The car and its driver are, in Calcutta, a metaphor for a wild Bacchanalian energy driven by the subconscious. The word “driven” has, in this context, more than one resonance. If cars don’t constantly collide with each other, even as they seem on the verge of doing so, it’s only because the id’s instinct for self-preservation is generally powerful, though obviously not as powerful as one might wish.

Part of the reason, too, is the process by which drivers are made in this city: driving schools, instructors, and the driving test itself. I myself don’t know how to drive; a nervousness about the inevitable and a deep-rooted apathy have prevented me from acquiring the skill. Exasperated by my inaction, my wife decided to become a driver four years ago. She enrolled with a small driving school. Every afternoon, she vanished with the instructor — a small, thin, myopic man — into Ballygunge, Gariahat, and down Southern Avenue. A month later, she set out for her driving test; an examiner made her complete half a circle round Maddox Square. Then she was presented with an array of road signs, beneath which was printed in English what they signified — for instance, “No Right Turn”, “U-Turn”. My wife, trying to keep her eyes from straying towards the words, identified the signs; she was afraid to point out their oddly revelatory nature to her examiner, in case he failed her for this reason. She passed the test and was issued a license. She still did not know how to drive.

Back in Cambridge, my wife made another attempt to learn driving. She enlisted with the AA — not Alcoholics Anonymous, but the Automobile Association — and it was now that the foundations of her driving skills were laid. Going down Madingley Road, in the direction of Bedford, turning into country lanes in a small Rover, guided by her instructor, she became more familiar with the flat, rather unpictures- que landscape around Cambridge than I ever did. But her lessons were interrupted by a joyous knock on the door by a stranger: it turned out she was pregnant.

Recently, back in Calcutta, our daughter two years old, she resumed her driving lessons for the final time with an instructor who was sent to her by someone who worked at what might be called the AA’s counterpart here — the AAEI. An easy-going, garrulous male chauvinist, he would patronize her at every step, and, going down the melancholy stretch of the convivially-named Picnic Gardens, force her to unlearn much of what she’d been taught in England: for instance, to pause and look right and left before emerging from a by-lane into a main road. Such niceties are irrelevant here: you must seize the moment. And this is precisely why our roads are what they are.

These lessons were supplemented by impromptu advice given to her by our driver. One thing the latter taught her was that she must stop the car and wait for a few seconds if a cat ever crossed her path. This is an unwritten rule among chauffeurs in Calcutta, and I’ve noticed that all of them obey it. I asked my driver, a devout Muslim, why he believed in such superstitions. He explained to me that the cat, crossing from one side of the street to the other, sends out a signal of imminent danger to the driver which he’d be foolish to disregard.

Twice, apparently, he had ignored the cat; the first time, he was almost run into by a truck, which then dropped much of its 28-ton load on the front of the car. The second time, when he happened to be driving a taxi, he was arrested by a policeman for no discernible reason, and spent the night in the lock-up. I told him that a small newspaper had not long ago related how a driver had applied brakes upon seeing a cat, and been rammed from behind by a lorry, resulting in the driver’s fatality. He nodded politely, as you would at a visitor who cannot comprehend the exigencies of your environment. He prides himself on being intimate with the paradoxes that govern these roads.



Timekeeper to the nation

Did the tiger need to be shown the timepiece to get the hint that his time is up? Maharashtra strongman, and Nationalist Congress Party leader, Sharad Pawar, obviously thinks so. That was the most apparent reason for his wresting the presidentship of the Mumbai Cricket Association from the hands of Ajit Wadekar and thereby the jaws of the Shiv Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray. But there are others who believe Pawar was in the fray for less altruistic reasons. The uncharitable joke doing the rounds is that this former Congressi>wallah has found it worth his while to try his luck in cricket after the news broke of the surprising dividends matchfixing has fetched. “Sahib suddenly realized the game has business potential too,” is how Pawar’s bête noire, Shankarrao Chavan, puts it. Chavan had earlier given a clean chit to Pawar on the hawala allegations, pointing out that his rival would have nothing to do with it since hawala transactions are entirely run on trust. So one has to keep a strict watch on the hands of the time-piece as well?

Not the end of the story

After much nitpicking, pricking of pins, a thunderous resignation and a voluminous book to recount all that gore, it’s peacetime, folks. We are talking about star lawyer, Ram Jethmalani, and his recent softening of heart. The buzz in the legal circles of the capital is that after having burnt his bridges with the saffron brigade in trying to pull the chief justice down from his high chair, Jethmalani is keen to make amends. Let’s say to express regrets for his tirades, particularly the muckraking over the authenticity of the chief justice’s officially recorded age. Ram’s invitation to AS Anand for a recent wedding in his immediate family is being seen as the legal-eagle’s way of saying sorry. At least that is how senior lawyers are interpreting the unexpected invitation. The chief justice on his part is said to have duly responded to the invitation by sending a congratulatory message as befits the occasion. However, the white flag does not seem to be held out for everybody to see. There were other famous figures involved in the bitter row and the invitation card did not make it to the homes of the rest. Which could only mean that the pinpricks might continue.

Where to from here?

So Nandu Babu is retiring and not retiring. The high profile secretary in the PMO, NK Singh, is scheduled to bid farewell on January 31, but is unlikely to call it a day yet. There is considerable speculation about his next assignment. Meanwhile, three senior bureaucrats — AK Basu, Shyamal Ghosh and Anil Kumar are keenly eyeing the key job. Nandu Babu, a favourite with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was earlier slated to go to Washington, but Lalit Mansingh pipped him to it. His bid to become country director of the WTO is also being blocked by the swadeshi /i>lobby. Singh’s biggest problem is the finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, who is determined to make the most of this crucial hour by trying to “fix” him. Nandu is now trying hard to stay on as “advisor” in the PMO, but the saffron family seems to be in no mood to let that happen. The sangh parivar evidently wants the slot to be filled with someone who is close to it and quite obviously does not want Nandu Babu anywhere close to the scene. Will NK be banished from his babudom then?

When beauty overcomes the beast

These sisters are no longer strangers. The BSP chief, Mayavati, has of late grown immensely fond of the 10, Janpath resident, Sonia Gandhi. The AICC chief was the guest of honour at Mayavati’s 44th birthday bash. The truce is reputed to have been worked out by, guess who, the herbal queen, Shahnaz Hussain, who is beauty consultant to both the ladies. Shahnaz reportedly spoke highly about Sonia to Mayavati which got her thinking seriously about madam. Now a Congress-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh cannot be ruled out entirely. Will beauty treatment make it to the election manifesto?

Movers and shakers

The other day, when a famous film director wanted to see the Union home minister take up cudgels in favour of financier Bharat Shah, he used the services of a minor print journalist turned well known TV anchor. And pronto, LK Advani was available to the man. Would you still take journalists to be very small fry?

Footnote / She didn’t start the fire

Getting ready for another kill. The Trinamool Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, is reportedly all set to remove Pankaj Banerjee from the party’s policymaking body. What made didi hopping mad was Banerjee’s misbehaviour with some mediapersons when the prime witness to the Chhoto Angaria massacre, Abdur Rahman Mondal, was being presented to the press at a private nursing home. When scribes began asking Mondal questions, Banerjee is reported to have jumped up, forbidding journos from asking embarrassing questions. Newspaperwallahs left in a huff after that. Banerjee is said to have committed other sins as well, one being his recent hobnobbing with BJP leaders, particularly the state unit chief, Asim Ghosh. Banerjee’s detractors have already informed Mamata of his “betrayal” in a bid to corner him before the assembly elections. Didi is so angry that she is expected to take a decision within a few days, say Trinamool leaders. The party grapevine also has it that Mamata might replace Banerjee with one of the five Congress MLAs who are expected to join her by the end of the month. That’s quite a flare up.    


Untouched by fear

Sir — By reiterating his government’s commitment to peace and by deliberately dismissing the attack on him, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah, has once again demonstrated that he is the right man for the job (“Grenades whizz past fiery Farooq”, Jan 15). The only way peace can return to the valley is under a firm leader who will not yield to pressure from militant groups like the Hizbul Mujahedin. It must not be forgotten that Abdullah is faced with a disillusioned and weary people, constant complaints about human rights violations, as well as the militants. But the real test for Abdullah will come when the Centre decides whether or not to extend the ceasefire.
Yours faithfully,
Suchandra Guha, via email

Unhealthy state

Sir — It is not surprising that the regional director of the World Bank for south Asia, Richard Skolnik, found himself in an embarrassing situation in Dhaka on December 6 (“Putting profits over people”, Dec 27). Delegates from 95 countries raised a chorus of protest ag- ainst the anti-poverty policies of the World Bank which, they claimed, had led to a devastating economic malaise, deterioration in the public healthcare system and had negatively affected the poor and underprivileged in developing countries.

Recently, there have been protests against the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization because of their and discriminatory policies. Despite increased government spending on healthcare and education, these essential services continue to remain inaccessible to the poor in India.

The World Bank’s policy of restructuring the primary healthcare system has resulted in widening the gap between the privileged and the underprivileged and in promoting the interests of multinational drug and cosmetic companies. It is really unfortunate that the declaration, “Health for all”, still remains a dream after 22 years.

Yours faithfully,
Phani Bhusan Saha, Calcutta

Sir — The state of public health services in West Bengal has plunged to abysmal depths of ignominy. In spite of the inconvenience caused to the general public, the government has not taken appropriate steps to improve the existing health services. Instead, it has remained a mute spectator to the overall deterioration in the health services and has done nothing to get rid of the quacks who have replaced doctors, especially in rural areas.

What is the reason behind such apathy? Has the government managed to forget its responsibility to the people or does it really not care?

Yours faithfully,
Ranjit Rozario, Calcutta

Courtly gesture

Sir — The report, “Case position display boards put up in high court” (Jan 3), has certain factual errors. The entire amount for extension of air-conditioning facilities to the court rooms and chambers of the judges, CD-ROM, digital display boards and so on at the Calcutta high court has been provided from the state budget. The statement that “Rs 5 crore has been primarily allotted by the Union law ministry to modernize the century-old buil- ding of India’s oldest court” is therefore based on wrong information.
Yours faithfully,
A.K. Bhattacharya, special secretary to the government of West Bengal, judicial department, Calcutta

The error is regretted. — The editor

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